Avoiding carbohydrates has slowly become, over many years, a diet cliche: Bread? I may not be a coeliac but get that stuff away from me. Pasta? No go! Potatoes? Are you kidding me?
While these might be three of the first things to go during a health-kick, it’s often the whole macronutrient group that falls into disfavour, reinforcing the popular assertion that ‘carbs are bad’.
But do carbs really deserve their much maligned reputation? Or is it time that we changed our thinking and embraced carbohydrates in our daily diets?
What are carbohydrates?
At the most basic level, carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients found in food, the other two being protein and fat. They can, typically, be divided into two categories; simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates, or sugars, consist of just one or two molecules and, due to this structure, can be broken down quickly by the body to provide a quick source of energy.
Complex carbohydrates (starch or fibre), on the other hand, consist of long chains of molecules that generally take longer to break down, thus providing the body with a source of energy over a longer period of time, keeping you fuller for longer,
Do carbs really deserve their much maligned reputation? Or is it time that we changed our thinking and embraced carbohydrates in our daily diets?
All carbohydrates, whether simple or complex, will eventually be broken down into ‘glucose’ in our bodies. This glucose is a source of energy for the body, and is used alongside protein and fat for growth and repair. Every gram of carbohydrate contains 4kcals of energy, and guidelines suggest that between 45 and 65 per cent of our daily calories should come from carbohydrates.
Why are carbohydrates important?
As I mentioned previously, carbohydrates are broken down by the body into glucose for energy for physical and, importantly, mental activity. If there is a surplus in the body, and the energy isn’t immediately needed, the glucose is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. This can be broken down into glucose again if the body needs a boost of energy. So far, so clear.
However, if we’re talking about carbohydrates for exercise performance, the water becomes extremely murky. Are carbohydrates, as many people suggest, important for optimal performance in sport? Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer to this question, as many studies have shown.
Ultimately, it could come down to the type of sport you are doing: endurance, HITT, resistance, skill-based or otherwise. In terms of resistance training, in an article published in 2016 by the British Journal of Nutrition, the authors seemed to concluded that the level of carbohydrate within the diet of a strength-trained individual didn’t affect performance or muscle development, with similar outcomes for those with low, medium and high carbohydrate diets. This was primarily down to how little muscle glycogen is used during a bout of strength training. However, the article acknowledged that more research was needed before any firm conclusions could be drawn.
When it comes to endurance or ultra-endurance activities, the research is also split. While some studies argue that endurance athletes can benefit from adapting to a low carbohydrate diet (due to the greater availability of fat to convert to energy than stored glycogen), others have suggested that this kind of diet can actually impair performance compared with diets that are high in carbohydrates. Most, however, seem to agree that eating a low-carbohydrate-high-fat diet (LCHF) would take several months to adapt to, in order for endurance athletes to see any real improvements in their performance.
Interestingly, one article published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, suggested that carbohydrates were actually pretty crucial for sports with a distinct skill element, such as football. In the study, players who had consumed carbohydrates prior to a match showed a significant improvement in their dribbling, shooting and agility.
OK, so where does that leave us?
Despite your new kit and dedication to the gym, you’re probably not an elite athlete (yet); as such, you’re unlikely to have a dedicated team attending to your every nutritional need. More’s the pity.
What this means is that you’ll probably have to figure out what works for you, which, I would suggest, shouldn’t involve eliminating an entire food group, unless advised to do so by a doctor or nutritionist.
So, what carbohydrates should I be eating?
There are some obvious guidelines to follow when it comes to eating healthy carbs. And yes, there are healthy carbs! As a basic strategy, you could take a look at the Glycaemic Index (GI), which shows how quickly a food affects your blood sugar level when it is consumed. Basically, the lower the GI rating the better.
Whole grains are a great option – such as brown rice, oatmeal, whole grain pasta and bulgar wheat – as they contain all three components of the seed, unlike refined grains that remove the protein rich germ and fibre rich bran. Beans, peas, and lentils also contain low GI carbohydrates and relatively high amounts of protein and fibre, among other nutrients.
It goes without saying that fruits are another wonderful source of carbohydrates, but make sure you eat them in whole fruit form, rather than as a fruit drink; juices tend to have a much higher sugar content, with less fibre and micronutrients.
Conversely, although potatoes have some nutrients, according to David Ludwig, they “contain predominantly starch with a high GI as typically eaten. Thus the health effects of potatoes more closely resemble those of refined grains than those of other vegetables.”
What’s more, according to new advice from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, our average intake of ‘free sugars’ – aka sugars added to foods, and sugars occurring naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices – should not exceed 5 per cent of your total daily intake. A reduction from the previous figure of 10 per cent.
If I regularly exercise, when’s the best time to eat my carbs?
According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the following guidelines apply at a very basic level, but consideration should be given to the type of exercise performed and your own personal circumstances.
Duration of exercise session – recommended intake (per kg body weight per day)
3-5 hours per week – 4-5g
5-7 hours per week – 5-6g
1-2 hours per day – 6-8g
2 + hours per day – 8-10g
When it comes to the workout itself, Sports Dieticians Australia recommends eating a meal rich in carbohydrates and protein 2-4 hours before exercise. They also suggest adding in a small snack around 1-2 hours before exercise for a “final top-up of fuel stores”. This snack should be low in fibre – to avoid any digestion or stomach related issues – low in fat – so it’s quicker to digest – and, importantly, familiar. Good examples include: a small bowl of oats, or wholewheat toast with peanut butter and a banana.
During your workout, unless you are performing ongoing exercise for more than 45 minutes, there shouldn’t be any need for you to consume extra carbohydrates throughout the exercise. If you exercise for over an hour, the recommendation is to take 30g of carbohydrates during exercise, if you exercise for over two hours, taking 60g per hour will help you achieve optimal performance.
It’s unlikely that the debate over carbohydrates will end at any point soon, especially with research pointing in different directions, both within academic circles and in the advice that filters down to the general population via Government infographics and papers.
However, the basic takeaway from this should be that carbs can be healthy; they can deliver you essential micronutrients and fibre, and provide a great source of energy to keep you active and mentally alert throughout the day. To lose weight, calories consumed must be less than energy expenditure during the day, it’s as simple as that. So, until research provides conclusive evidence one way or the other, I’ll be eating my carbs and enjoying them in the process.